Experts: "Difficult to exaggerate" how bad Thursday was for Trump after he faces "real consequences"

Judge Juan Merchan agreed with prosecutors that former President Donald Trump can't be trusted with witness names

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published April 19, 2024 10:41AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump (C), flanked by attorneys Todd Blanche (L) and Emil Bove (R), arrives for his criminal trial as jury selection continues at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 18, 2024 in New York City. (Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump (C), flanked by attorneys Todd Blanche (L) and Emil Bove (R), arrives for his criminal trial as jury selection continues at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 18, 2024 in New York City. (Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images)

While he has never been seen as a towering intellect, many have nonetheless viewed former President Donald Trump as a shrewd, cynical operator. Behind all the rants and outbursts is a certain logic and, for a time, you couldn’t argue with the results: a stint in the White House and the evasion of all consequences for acts that might have landed someone else behind bars.

Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial is testing that thesis. So far, the 77-year-old’s antics – attacking potential witnesses and intimidating jurors, in the courtroom and on Truth Social – are looking less like a master at work than the actions of a man who simply can’t control himself. It’s even looking like it might cost him.

A hearing is scheduled for next week on whether Trump’s actions to date violate the gag order imposed on him, with prosecutors seeking to fine him the maximum penalty of $1,000 for each alleged offense. But on Thursday, the third day of jury selection, Judge Juan Merchan said he’d already seen enough.

The first tangible consequence came after Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass told the court that, going forward, he would not be providing the defense any heads up as to which witnesses they planned to call the next day at trial. Trump faces 34 counts related to his alleged falsification of business records to cover up a hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, which prosecutors say was intended to unlawfully influence the 2016 election.

“We’re not telling them who the witnesses are,” Steinglass announced, with Merchan responding that he “can’t blame” them given Trump’s previous attacks on Daniels and his former fixer, Michael Cohen.

That would place Trump’s defense team at a disadvantage, a fact his lawyer, Todd Blanche, immediately recognized. Blanche promised Merchan he could change Trump, claiming that he could “commit to the Court and the People that [former] President Trump will not Truth about any witness,” The Washington Post reported.

Merchan was unimpressed. “I don’t think you can make that representation,” he responded, also rejecting Blanche’s proposal that he be given the witness names with the promise that he not share them with his own client.

It was an extraordinary commentary on Trump’s self-defeating irresponsibility; the sort of behavior that got him a lecture on Tuesday objectively hampered his defense by Thursday.

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Former federal prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, appearing on MSNBC, said the episode shows the court doesn’t trust Trump but also doesn’t trust his lawyers either. “When you have everyone operating in good faith and people comply with the rules, it is standard procedure” for prosecutors to share the next day’s witness list, he said.

“Obviously the judge has lost confidence in Todd Blanche,” Weissmann said. Normally, the judge would say, “I will give it to you, but you have to promise me,” he noted, “and that usually would work.”

Criminal defense attorney Ken White said that is an extremely bad development for Trump’s legal team. “It would be very difficult to exaggerate how bad it is not to know what witnesses are coming next,” White wrote on Bluesky. “The more witnesses and the more complicated the case, the worse it is,” he said, noting that the sharing of witness lists is “[n]ot required by law, but custom.

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If one violates the norms, in other words, one shouldn’t act surprised when the norms are gone. For the former and aspiring president, however, it’s an unusual feeling, not being the one in the room who calls the shots and always gets their way.

“It feels like Trump is trying to show the judge who’s boss and, at the end, it's the judge, the person in the black robe in front of the courtroom,” former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance told MSNBC. “It’s a novel and unique position for the former president to be in.”

Trump may have believed his actions would only cost him a “contempt” charge and that fines – or even a day in jail – could bolster his claims of persecution without really harming him, in turn bolstering his perceived invincibility.

Renato Mariotti, another former prosecutor, said the court’s decision Thursday will actually sting. “Trump’s attacks on witnesses finally have real consequences,” he wrote on social media. “Judge Merchan exercising discretion to penalize behavior that endangers witnesses will be far more effective tool than a $1,000 fine.”

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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